IF you think it's too early to start sizing up the 2008 Oscar season, consider that it already began in the fall -- at the Telluride and Toronto international film festivals. That's where small specialty films like Sony Pictures Classics' "The Counterfeiters" and Larry Charles and Bill Maher's documentary "Religulous" made their North American debuts.
Granted, many of the 2008 contenders have yet to be released, much less promoted by Oscar campaigners. But with award season pundits already declaring the 2007 race a bust (blame those Iraq war films, a lack of big hits like "Titanic" and the ongoing writers strike), maybe it's time to consider who might be on stage in 2009 at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
Imagine "Titanic's" Jack and Rose all "growed up," married and living in the American burbs in the 1950s. The winking parallels are unavoidable in Sam Mendes' film based on Richard Yates' 1961 novel and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler. But rather than two teenage star-crossed lovers, the Wheelers are bored Connecticut parents eager to flee their lives and pursue their artistic ambitions abroad.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Brad Pitt's recent spate of Oscar-bait roles -- 2006's "Babel," 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and the upcoming Coen brothers comedy "Burn After Reading" -- could continue with this film, a David Fincher passion project based on a relatively obscure F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. The technically complex fantasy-drama centers on Button (Pitt) as a man who begins aging backward with odd consequences. Costars include this year's Oscar front-runners Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton and the woefully overlooked Taraji P. Henson ("Talk to Me").
Clint Eastwood has become something of a de facto prestige-picture poster boy, er, elder statesman. With his latest effort, "Changeling," Eastwood again tackles a story that requires much more than big craft service and visual-effects budgets. The period mystery stars Angelina Jolie as the grieving mother of a kidnapped son who seems a little off when he is returned home. This year's best supporting actress contender and critics' darling Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone") also stars.
Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the duke and duchess of Devonshire. Charlotte Rampling as Lady Spencer. Sounds like the kind of period delight, underscored with major acting chops, that motivates Oscar members to get out the vote. Adding an interesting wrinkle to this melange is screenplay co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen, the celebrated Dutch filmmaker. Jensen and Jeffrey Hatcher adapted the book by Amanda Foreman that chronicles the life of the 18th century aristocrat Georgiana (Knightley), an ancestor of Princess Diana.
The cloak-and-dagger international intrigue surrounding this Tom Cruise historical thriller set in Nazi Germany has left film fans scratching their heads. The real-life story of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, involving a botched attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II, is surely the stuff of silver-screen legend. And the tale is adapted by Academy Award-winning scribe Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects"). But did "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer jump the shark when he cast Cruise, the celebutabs' favorite leading man and Oprah couch-jumper? That was the popular opinion until the movie was moved off its June 27 release date to Oct. 3, squarely in the beginning of award season.
Wayne Kramer's early-summer release, "Crossing Over," has shades of Paul Haggis' best picture Oscar winner "Crash" -- meaning it contains all the right ingredients for awards attention: a star-filled ensemble cast, a prestige production team and touchstone cultural and political issues. The Weinstein Co. film, which centers on immigrants from around the world who enter Los Angeles every day with visions of better lives, stars Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ashley Judd and Alice Braga.
Will Smith reunites with celebrated "The Pursuit of Happyness" director Gabriele Muccino for a film about a man who falls in love while attempting to kill himself.
Jewish resistance fighters living in Nazi-occupied Poland who escape into the forest, where they join up with Russian resistance fighters and try to save the lives of other Jews. Written, directed and produced by Ed Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "The Last Samurai"), "Defiance" follows the Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay.
"Body of Lies"
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have a long habit of buddying up to tell manly-man stories. Fresh from "American Gangster," the duo will be joined in "Body of Lies" by Leonardo DiCaprio in a post-9/11 spy thriller based on the popular David Ignatius novel of the same name. DiCaprio plays a former journalist injured in the Iraq war who is tapped by the CIA to track down an Al Qaeda leader in Jordan. Crowe plays the chief of the CIA's Near East operations.
Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Enough said. OK, throw in producer Scott Rudin, cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Dylan Tichenor, production designer David Gropman and costume designer Ann Roth and you've got yourself a winner -- or at least a very strong contender. "Doubt" is based on John Patrick Shanley's stage play of the same name and focuses on a molestation charge at a Catholic school.
The 80th Annual Academy Awards